As alluded to in the BBC2 programme The Truth About Immigration, which aired on Tuesday night, the development and expansion of ethnic-oriented restaurants is being increasingly hampered by the coalition Government’s change in immigration rules. Work permits are now only given to those classified as ‘highly skilled’; that earn about £30,000 a year and can speak English.
As Enam Ali, owner of Le Raj restaurant in the Epsom Downs, explained: “If you advertise as job in the newspaper in Bangladesh and then want to bring a chef over to the UK, your application is often rejected because their English may be weak or the certificate they provide might not be from the proper institution – there are many different reasons for a rejection.
“But for me, it doesn’t matter if they can speak English because I’m looking for somebody that can cook a curry - I’m not looking for somebody to come into my kitchen lecturing English.”
Ali is the founder of the British Curry Awards, which recognises the work of people within the £4.5bn British curry industry. At the most recent awards ceremony, Prime Minister David Cameron gave an opening speech, vowing to support upcoming young chefs in the UK’s ethnic restaurant sector, but admitting that the difficulties importing skilled chefs from the Indian subcontinent will take some time to solve.
Cameron’s real message was blunt – stop relying on foreign chefs and train some here in Britain.
Mastara Chef initiative
That’s where the Mastara Chef apprenticeship programme comes in. The initiative, launched by the Asian Restaurants Skills Board in collaboration with the Hospitality Guild, aims to combat these immigration issues by training up UK-based chefs in Asian cooking.
Mastara Chef financially supports trainees through a Culinary Arts degree at the University of West London, with a specialism in Asian Cuisine. On completion of the course, graduates are given an apprenticeship at some of the country’s best Asian and Oriental restaurants. There have been four Mastara Chef scholarships since the initiative began, with Mastara Chef aiming to recruit another 10 apprentices between now and the end of March 2014.
Vivek Singh, chief executive and executive chef of The Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho, employs a number of Mastara Chef apprentices at his modern Indian restaurants in London.
“The age-old myth that you have to be Indian or Asian to cook Indian or Asian food is wrong and we want to remove it,” Singh told BigHospitality. Anybody can cook, they just need a level of intellect and a big heart.
“We have people from Morocco, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and here in England – they are coming in and adding a specific skill to their repertoire. As long as we continue to feed young chefs into the restaurant industry in this way, then the migration cap won’t have such a significant impact.”
One of Singh’s current Mastara Chef apprentices, Carolyn Huntley, explained that the Asian Cuisine-focus of her six-month scholarship was ‘perfect preparation’ for her work at Cinnamon Kitchen in the City.
“The course was very well-suited to the restaurant I’m now at,” said Huntley. “We were trained with a specific aim to go into the Asian or Oriental restaurant sector. I’ve learnt so much working with Vivek and the team and the Mastara Chef programme has opened up so many doors that I initially thought were closed.”
Next month, Singh will join forces with fellow chefs Atul Kochhar, Cyrus Todiwala and Philip Corrick to host a fundraising dinner; to help Mastara Chef hit its target of £38,000 to support more university scholarships.
And, as the rapid expansion of ethnic-oriented midmarket restaurant chains shows no sign of abating despite the tighter immigration laws, Singh believes more apprenticeship-based programmes like Mastara Chef will help tackle the recruitment challenge.
“The apprenticeship route is the best way of plugging the industry skills gap. Over the past year, the Mastara Chef programme uptake has been amazing and we’ve developed a real community of apprentices that are really making a difference.
“There’s quite a few restaurants at a high level that are accepting these young people, so it can only be a good thing for the industry.”
To find out more about the Mastara Chef programme, click here.